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Lynn Nottage’s ‘Ruined,’ directed by Liesl Tommy, at Berkeley Rep through April 10

March 16, 2011

by Wanda Sabir

At Berkeley Rep, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, left, and Tonye Patano star in “Ruined,” a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. – Photo: kevinberne.com
It feels like just a day ago that I was seated in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep watching or should I say participating in an event guaranteed to make one check her lapel for a humanity sticker to make sure it is still intact. I would hate to have lost it between the scuffles of wayward beings masquerading as people on stage.

“Ruined” – what does it mean to be ruined, to be available to a man too poor for a TV, so you are cast as the star in his home movie, “Ruined.”

Sexploitation, Blaxploitation in this case – women the cheapened vehicle for his easy ride? In war, especially a poor man’s war, what fun is there except in the antics, criminal antics of the powerful over the powerless?

“Ruined” is so agreeable – elastic – it functions in tangible and abstract terms. One can ruin something and then one can be ruined – versatile and flexible like a woman’s back when enough weight is placed on it.

What doesn’t break you will make you strong?! There is a Chinese proverb, coined by Mao Tse-Tung, that says women hold up half the sky. Well, if this is true, then those women live in Africa, over half of them victims of warfare. Those who can make the journey end up at Mama Nadi’s Brothel where they find peace, even respect, safety and love.

Nestled in a rain forest not far from civilization or the big city, but just edgy enough to be safe from the gunshots one hears periodically between the band’s numbers and the clink of glass on the table, is such a refuge. Men check their bullets at Mama Nadi’s door and for a moment pretend to be gentlemen out for a fun evening of entertainment with willing women, women who participate (for a fee) in their daydreams.

The set is colorful as only in Africa – all the material found objects that lend an air of charm and chic to the place where one does his business just out the back door. The customer is always right – an extension of patriarchal charm, since all the customers are men.

A woman’s body is the battlefield. It is a place in “Ruined” that holds both life and death – Nottage’s characters familiar with both. It is not often one sees a play written and directed by Black women, its director, Liesl Tommy, from Cape Town, South Africa, a place also touched by violence, many of its women, like Mama Winnie Mandela, also ruined.

Rape is a weapon of war. Salima (actress Pascale Armand) asks Sophie (actress Carla Duren) what she did to deserve to be raped. Sophie quickly assures her friend that it wasn’t her fault, that she did nothing, that in fact she was the victim. At times Salima hates her body – its attractiveness, its allure – as do most of the women, including Josephine (actress Zainab Jah) whose lineage is royal, but that didn’t save her from the same fate as the others.

They are all ruined. “Ruined” is a dead end that invites more of the same. It’s no wonder that Sophie loves romance novels; if one can’t have the one she loves – ever – then why not read about love that works, always works at least on paper (smile).

At the brothel, tables are scattered about and there is a stage where musicians sit invitingly: Alvin Terry from Monroe, North Carolina, and Adesoji Odukogbe or Soji, as we know him, from Nigeria, lead guitarist for the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The two musicians with Sophie on lead vocals soothe savage beasts, the music often taking both the characters and the audience on a journey away from the events unfolding on stage – a place no plane would willingly land.

Money cannot save anyone, although it helps Mr. Harari (actor Joseph Kamal), a business friend of Mama’s who has his fingers in a variety of ventures, like refrigeration and telecommunications, buy a little time.

Mama Nadi steers a neutral path to shores visited by demons and dragons, warring factions who frequent her bar. It’s scary just watching Tonye Patano’s “Mama Nadi” keep her head and never lose her cool especially when a gun is at her head or a machete at her throat.

Remarkable woman! Some folks have it – that cool element on frost control – and others, well, when one meets a Mama Nadi-type, one instantly recognizes it, the gift. It’s no wonder the women at the brothel call her “Mama” and count themselves lucky to have found her.

Even among the ruins, there is love. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this is a fiction, a creation of Lynn Nottage’s imagination, or perhaps it’s because love sells (smile), or maybe it’s for a little relief – I don’t know. Lynn Nottage’s protagonists in other work, all women, find love. Perhaps she is a romantic?

The love story kind of steps off the pages of Sophie’s novel she reads aloud to Salima and Josephine.

There are two love stories in “Ruined” – one healthy, the other insane. One could say that themes unravel along lines ruined or tainted relationships travel, the trail peppered with loving references.

What of love is trust in a time of war? Is romance possible? How does a woman forget the memories inscribed in her body? How does she forgive the one with the knife?

“Ruined”?

Love and forgiveness are just two of many themes, all memorable, traversing the terrain in “Ruined.” One cannot find shoes sturdy enough to protect one from the overpowering emotions “Ruined” brings to the surface. Nottage’s work is like this, whether it is this work or “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” or “Intimate Apparel.”

“Fabulation” is at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through March 27, at the Southside Theatre in Ft. Mason Center. “Ruined” is produced in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre as well. Visit www.lhtsf.org. I interviewed the “Fabulation” cast on my radio show, Friday, March 11, 2011, 9 a.m., and “Ruined” cast members Oberon and Tonye on the show Tuesday, March 15, 2011, in a Special Broadcast. Visit www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.

“Intimate Apparel” is at San Jose State University Theatre March 16-19. I had the director, Buddy Butler, on my radio show, Friday, March 4, 9:30 a.m. He also directed the recent Tabia African American Ensemble Theatre’s “Jar the Floor.” Visit http://www.tvradiofilmtheatre.com/season.html.

Christian (actor Oberon K.A. Adjepond) is a traveling salesman who knows a lot about the world and men. We meet him early in the play and he is the only decent man on stage with lines. Even when he disappears and returns only to disappear again, even when he is at his lowest, Christian is a man one can anchor herself to. He is reliable – well sort of (smile) – and one can trust him.

When we meet him, he and Mama are haggling over fabric or some such item and he gives her a good deal. He comes bearing poetry and chocolate. Yes, the man is a poet – one who when on the battlefield recites a poem. Remember Saul Williams in “Slam” when the gangs surround him on the prison yard? It’s like that with Christian too.

Only a fine writer like Nottage could take such tragedy and make us smile and laugh between the tears. The characters dance and sing and invite the audience at the top of Act 2 to dance and sing too. It is pretty remarkable.

The scenes between the three women, Josephine jealous of Sophie who was brutally raped and has a fistula which affects her movement – her body a symbol of all that is horrific and terrible and wrong with war, wars men start and women suffer – are where “Ruined,” the story, lies.

The tenderness Sophie engenders from Mama Nadi, who didn’t want her to stay, a woman who is a shrewd business woman with a “cold heart,” creates some of the more touching scenes.

Christian, unlike the other male characters who are more transitory than permanent, stays and when he leaves, he has no other choice; we do not want his mouth to get him killed. He is not subtle, so I am surprised he gets away with as much as he does when the bad guys call.

The tension on stage when soldiers Fortune (Jason Bowen) and Laurent (Kola Ogundiran) and opposition leaders Jerome Kismembe (Wendell B. Franklin) and Commander Osebenga (Adrian Roberts) drop by Mama Nadi’s for entertainment is palatable. If I were a drinking woman, I’d probably have a drink too. Those actors are so good, they make a person lose control of her bowels.

“Ruined” at Berkeley Rep is a stellar production from the direction to the acting, set and stage design, the choreography, costumes and lighting. One should take a friend; don’t go alone as I did. There are nine shows a week, Tuesday-Sunday with some Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call (510) 647-2949. There is a cool deal for 30 and under patrons: Tickets are half price. There is also a same day student and senior rush for $10 one hour before curtain. Post-play discussions are Tuesday, March 22, and Friday, April 1. There are also free tastings and pre-show docent talks, so visit the website for all the details.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wsab1@aol.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7:30 or 8 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.

 

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